The problem with anecdotal evidence is twofold. First, as pedants will happily explain, cherry-picking examples from a group, intentionally or not, doesn’t necessarily give you a good sense of what that group contains. (In fact, the odds are that it doesn’t.) But that problem is compounded by the other problem: Anecdotal data can seem more immediate and personal because it’s something that we ourselves have experienced.
So we get situations like “the media,” a term that means whatever you happen to want it to mean in the context in which you’re using it. Can it mean everything from cable news to random tweets from reporters to the National Enquirer? Sure. Does each of those things at times get used as a way to describe or disparage the media on the whole? Yep. Some non-small amount of the criticism over coverage of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election is predicated on panels of partisans and pundits weighing in on MSNBC and CNN.
Put another way, how we perceive the media often depends on what media we’ve seen most recently. That means that, sometimes, people like myself might wonder if the men who are running for the Democratic primary nomination are actually getting a lot more coverage than the women or if it just seems that way. Happily, we have actual data that can inform this, thanks to the Internet Archive’s database of television news closed-captioning.
We took candidates and likely candidates for the Democratic nomination* and tracked how often each was mentioned from Jan. 1 through the beginning of April during the daily news broadcasts on the three largest cable news networks — CNN, MSNBC and Fox News — and the five broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and PBS. (The data, compiled by the GDELT Project, looks at the percentage of 15-second clips in a day in which the person is mentioned.)
The result? Men were a bit more likely to be mentioned in television coverage overall — but only on cable.
But there’s an important caveat to that finding. It’s also the case that the candidates faring the best in Democratic primary polling are men, former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). If we draw a line showing the trend comparing how candidates are polling to how much coverage they got on television, something stands out.
Here, for example: Biden and Sanders are polling better than their cable news coverage would suggest. Each is well above that trend line, while Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) are below the line — they were mentioned on television more than their position in the polls might suggest.
There’s at least one obvious reason for that. Both Warren and Harris were mentioned by Fox News far more than other women seeking the Democratic nomination (though not as much as Biden, Sanders or former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke). Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., who has seemed (anecdotally!) to be all over television recently, has actually gotten less coverage than his polling position might suggest.
Overall, four women got more coverage than their position in the polls would suggest, while one got less. (Most of those candidates, though, were fairly far back in the polls and therefore subject to big swings on margin of error.) For the most part, the men got less coverage than their position in the polls might indicate, with the probably unsurprising exception of O’Rourke.
On the broadcast metric, there’s an interesting outlier. Harris has received far more coverage on broadcast news programs than her position in the polls might suggest. Why? Well, probably in part because Harris is from the Bay Area — as is the Internet Archive, so the broadcast stations they monitor are mostly based in San Francisco.
That Harris boost is also why women were more commonly mentioned on broadcast networks.
It’s perfectly fair to argue, of course, that poll position shouldn’t dictate how much coverage a candidate gets. There really isn’t any great metric to determine what’s “fair” in coverage, a point with which news organizations regularly struggle. You can’t cover every person who runs, however serious, but you also can’t simply focus on whoever leads in the polls.
It seems like television coverage has landed somewhere between those poles. The Washington Post’s coverage, of course, has been flawless, according to anecdotal data I have at hand.
* The candidates we included were Biden, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii), Buttigieg, Gov. Jay Inslee (Wash.), O’Rourke, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, former HUD secretary Julián Castro, and Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Harris, Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Sanders and Warren.